What horses can teach us about breathing mindfully

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We have recently added a new coping strategy to our Connect with Horses personal empowerment workshops.  As with equine-assisted experiential learning, equine-guided meditation and equine-led walking meditation, it is an activity that participants practice in the presence of our horses.

A lot has been written about how horses use breathing to connect and to communicate. Horses tend to breathe slower and deeper when they need to either calm themselves or another herd member. The question arose: “Could we possibly connect and communicate with horses by regulating our breathing?”

In my opinion, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Not only can we calm a distressed horse by breathing slowly and deeply, but we can also be calmed ourselves by paying attention to a horse’s breathing pattern and speed when the horse is at ease and at rest. The effect is most powerful in the presence of our herd.

Before we can benefit from such an experience, we must first become aware of our own breathing, an automatic process most of us pay very little attention to on a day-to-day basis. Take a minute or two now and observe how quickly or slowly you are breathing. Is your breathing low (you are breathing from your belly), or high (you are breathing from your chest)? Is there a pause between your in-breath and your out-breath? Do you breathe through your mouth or through your nose? It will be easier to determine your breathing speed and pattern if you put one hand on your chest and the other hand under your bellybutton. This way you can feel which part of your body mostly moves up and down every time you inhale and exhale. Become aware of your breathing in a non-judgemental way – there is no right or wrong way to do this exercise, it is merely about observing what is happening naturally.

This is probably one of the best mindfulness exercises I know, while doing it you are 100% present in the current moment.

This is how our workshop participants start each mindfully breathing exercise with our horses. I first ask them to become aware of their own breathing, without trying to regulate it in any way. They may be breathing slightly faster than normal – if they have never been in the presence of a herd, it is perfectly normal to feel somewhat anxious.

When we are anxious, we change the way we breathe, without realising. Both our breathing rate and pattern change. Instead of taking deep breaths, into our lower lungs, we start to breathe superficially. We take quick, shallow breaths, into our upper lungs only. It feels as if we cannot breathe and we say that we cannot “catch our breath.” This expression is not entirely accurate, because we manage perfectly well to breathe in, even if only in short, sharp breaths. The problem is that we do not breathe out properly, we also breathe out in short gasps. This can lead to a condition called hyperventilation.

When we breathe, we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Fast, shallow breathing can cause the carbon dioxide levels in your bloodstream to drop too low. This, in turn, can cause quite a few uncomfortable and alarming symptoms. You may

  • Have palpitations – your heart feels as if it is racing – and tightness in your chest or chest pain. This is why panic attacks are often confused with heart attacks.
  • Feel lightheaded, weak, faint, dizzy and unable to think straight
  • Have tingling or numbness in your fingertips or around your mouth
  • Experience a sense of terror, or impending doom or death
  • Have a dry mouth and feel sweaty, hot and bothered or you may have chills
  • Feel nauseous and have abdominal pain or bloating
  • Feel as if you are losing control

If this should happen, you can avoid a full-blown panic attack by mindfully doing breathing exercises. Below are some breathing exercises which will help you avoid hyperventilation. It is important that you breathe in and out at a steady rate.

Exercise 1: Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Imagine your lungs are divided into three parts. Breathe in gently through your nose. First, imagine the lowest part of your lungs filling with air. Next, imagine the middle part of your lungs filling with air and then your lungs filling with air right to the top. Relax your shoulders. Gently and slowly exhale fully and completely. Repeat the exercise three or four times.

Exercise 2: Take a deep, full breath. Exhale slowly, fully and completely. Inhale again and count from 1 to 4 (or for as long as feels comfortable). Pause for 4 seconds. Exhale slowly while counting from 1 to 4 (or for as long as feels comfortable). Pause for 4 seconds. Repeat the exercise three or four times. This is also called square breathing.

Exercise 3: Resting the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, right behind your top front teeth. Keep your tongue in place throughout the practice. Start by exhaling completely through your mouth. Next, close your mouth, inhaling silently through your nose as you count to four in your head. Then, for seven seconds, hold your breath. Exhale from your mouth for eight seconds. This is called 4-7-8 breathing. Repeat at least 4 times. The held breath (for seven seconds) is the most critical part of this practice.

Once our workshop participants are fully conscious of their own breathing rhythm and depth, I ask them to pay attention to the horses’ breathing speeds and patterns. This accomplished, I encourage them again to notice their own breathing, to find out if there has been a change. They often report that their own breathing slows and becomes deeper as they concentrate on the horses’ breathing. They also say that they gradually start to feel more and more relaxed. Many report a profound feeling of connection, with the horses and with each other.

Whenever you feel anxious, I recommend you do one of the breathing exercises above. My personal favourite is square breathing. It will help you to relax and can also help you fall asleep. If you find yourself in a difficult situation, do the exercise of your choice at least twice a day. If you would like to experience the profoundly calming effect breathing with horses can have, join us for a personal empowerment workshop here in the south of France!

For more information, send an e-mail to welcome2 gascony[at]gmail.com.

Finding Your Way

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I have long been convinced of the impact a well-constructed vision board can have on our ability to realise our objectives and ambitions. I included the concept is the first book I wrote, nearly 10 years ago now, Horse Riding Confidence Secrets, helping horse riders to regain their horse riding confidence after, for example, a fall. Vision boards have played a pivotal role in my own life as well as in the lives of many of my workshop participants. I would go as far as to say that a carefully constructed vision board can dramatically increase our chances of succeeding in attaining our objectives.

For those who may not know, a vision board is a collage of images, pictures and affirmations of one’s dreams and desires, designed to serve as a source of inspiration and motivation. One of my favourite authors, Jack Canfield, writes about it extensively, both in his books and on his website. He says, “Your brain will work tirelessly to achieve the statements you give your subconscious mind. And when those statements are the affirmations and images of your goals, you are destined to achieve them!”

One of the simplest ways to make a vision board is to collect a good number of images that represent your ideal life, stick them together on a board, add emotionally moving affirmations and spend a few moments every day looking at your vision board and visualising your ideal life. I will not go into further details here. There are many articles on- and off-line that explain how to make a vision board and I have also covered the process comprehensively in my book “You ARE good enough,” with links to the best articles and websites that will enable you to make a powerful vision board yourself.

What I do want to mention here is why it is beneficial to make a vision board:

  • Vision boards help us to focus and think about where we want our lives to go from here. If you are looking for a new calling, if you have an empty nest, if you have just retired or if you have lost your spouse, a vision board can help you chart a new path.
  • A vision board can inspire you on days that you feel a bit low and it can help you overcome obstacles and stay motivated to make the changes needed to stay on course and advance on the path you have chosen.
  • A vision board enables you to share your vision for your life with others in a practical and easy-to-understand way. Sharing your vision for your future with others can engage support from friends and family.
  • As a vision board dramatically increases your chances of success, it can make you feel good about yourself and increase your self-confidence.
  • Reviewing your vision board and visualising your ideal life can reduce stress. The simple act of quieting your mind and visualising your chosen future reduces the amount of stress you are constantly bombarded with.
  • A vision board can also make you feel happier. Visualising events and situations that give you joy is a very powerful mood enhancer.
  • A vision board and visualisation can have health benefits. If you encounter a health-related obstruction to realising your dream life, you can visualise yourself getting better and ending up fit and healthy. You can add pictures of fit and healthy people, or pictures of yourself when you were healthy, to your vision board. As the act of visualising reduces stress and lifts your mood, it can enable your body to heal itself and function more effectively.

As I mentioned, creating and reviewing a vision board is a visualisation exercise. Psychology Today reported that the brain patterns activated when a weightlifter lifts weights are also activated when the lifter only visualises the process of lifting weights. Your mind cannot differentiate between what is real and what is imagined. When you visualize yourself doing something, your ability to do it improves as if you are really doing it. Many athletes such as Michael Jordan, Tiger Wood, and Usain Bolt visualised and mentally rehearsed winning many times before they actually won.

Over the last 10 years, I have learned a thing or two about vision boards. These days, I encourage my workshop participants not only to make a vision board about their desired outcomes but also to journal their journey until they reach their goals and beyond. There are so many different ways we can make vision boards and journal now, it is easier than ever before. We all have mobile phones, so a photographic or even a video journal is within easy reach of all of us. There is a myriad of websites where you can make a vision board online and either download it or leave it on the website and adjust it as you go along. There are as many websites offering the possibility of journalling online.

I have learned, from personal experience, that making a vision board is not enough, even if we mindfully review it daily. Further action is needed. Journalling mindfully, especially if it includes expressing gratitude for what you already have, substantially increase the power of your vision board to realise your dreams.

I have also discovered that a vision board should focus on how you want to feel once you reach your goals. Vision boards that evoke positive feelings are many times more powerful than vision boards that do not involve your feelings.

One of my blogging buddies, Jennifer Rochette Koshak, who has a great sense of humour, is a vision board expert and vision board coach. She also presents vision board workshops. She blogs at Unfold and Begin. When time permits, my Connect with Horses personal empowerment workshops include a discussion about the benefits of making a vision board. There rarely is time to go into the process in depth, as most of our time is taken up with equine-guided meditation and equine-assisted experiential learning.

While reading Jennifer’s work, I had an idea. I could present a stand-alone vision board workshop myself, at home here on the farm or wherever there is a demand, lasting a half-a-day or even a full day. As I said, there are already many websites offering this service, so how can I make my vision board workshop unique? The answer is obvious. Most of the people who come to my workshop are attracted by the presence of the horses, it is the horses’ contribution that makes these personal empowerment workshops unique. Many people find horses inspiring, even if they are a little scared of coming face to face with one in the flesh! A vision board workshop incorporating horses’ inspiring and motivating influence could be, I should think, not only very effective but also great fun and hugely entertaining.

At the moment this is still only an idea, a lot more work will have to go into making it happen. Maybe I should create a vision board about it! If you are interested in attending a vision board workshop inspired by horses, please write to me on welcome2gascony[at]gmail.com. If you have any ideas or advice on how I can make these workshops more worthwhile, please share them with me!

Have a vision. It is the ability to see the invisible. If you can see the invisible, you can achieve the impossible.
Shiv Khera

 

How to practice Art Meditation

Art Maditation
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This is another article in my stress management strategies series “How to Cope with Stress.” We have so far discussed various meditation methods: working meditation, writing meditation, walking meditation, sleep meditation, visualisation meditation, breathing meditation and Christian meditation. Today we look at Art Meditation: what it is and how to practice it.

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
Thomas Merton

What is Art Meditation? Art meditation allows us to focus on the process of creation while allowing our thoughts to drift by without engaging with them or reacting to them. According to Eckhart Tolle, “Identification with thoughts and the emotions that go with those thoughts creates a false mind-made sense of self, conditioned by the past… This false self is never happy or fulfilled for long. Its normal state is one of unease, fear, insufficiency, and non-fulfillment.” Art can help us connect to a deeper and calmer part of ourselves. “All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness,” according to Tolle.

Although many of us have heard about the extensive benefits of meditation, some of us find traditional sitting meditation difficult. Luckily, there are various other meditation methods that may suit us like walking meditation, working meditation, writing meditation…and art meditation. Here at Les Sources Sacrées, in the south of France, we also introduce our mindfulness meditation workshop participants to equine-guided meditation.

Let’s also look at what art meditation is not.

Art Therapy

Art Meditation is not Art Therapy. Art therapy is defined by the British Association of Art Therapists as “a form of psychotherapy that uses art as its primary mode of communication.” Art therapy helps patients express themselves to release and resolve emotional issues. Art therapy has a positive effect on a variety of illnesses including depression. In a recent study of cancer patients, an art therapy intervention — in conjunction with conventional treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy – not only diminished symptoms typically associated with cancer such as pain, fatigue and anxiety but also increased life expectancy. The study was based on the theory that “the creative process involved in the making of art is healing and life-enhancing. It is used to help patients, or their families, increase awareness of self, cope with symptoms, and adapt to stressful and traumatic experiences.”

Creative Meditation 

Art Meditation is not Creative Meditation either. Creative meditation enables us to consciously cultivate and strengthen specific mental characteristics like patience, appreciation, empathy, gratitude, compassion, courage, humility etc. Creative meditation enables us to enhance these strengths of character.

How to practice Art Meditation – 10 suggestions
Read more…

Grateful for what we have

Comparing Meditation Retreats
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If wishes were horses!

I wish we had a whirlpool/jacuzzi/spa tub at our retreat. It would have been wonderful to lie back into hot, swirling bubbles at the end of a busy day of walking meditation, writing meditation and working meditation sessions. Especially if we also did an equine-assisted experiential learning session. Instead, all we have is a 2 acre/1 Ha spring fed lake and a pond surrounded by mint, wild thyme and whispering reeds. Yes, I know I can sit on a sun lounger on the deck by the lake with a tall, cool drink (some of the ice-cold water from the mountain springs that feeds our lake will be pure bliss in the summer heat) and watch the sun set over the water. Or I could join the otters for a late afternoon swim in the lake. Or I could swing in a hammock over the water and watch the horses come down to the water for a drink. Or I could sit by the pond with my feet in the mint-scented water…

I also wish we had a sauna. Lots of retreat resorts have saunas. I would like one of the infra-red ones that warm up instantly. Just imagine all that blissful heat at the touch of a button. Yes, I know that we live in the south of France, where in the summer the temp goes up to 35° in the shade and where even in the winter we rarely have cause for complaint. I know I spent most of my days here trying to get out of the sun and into the shade. I know our guests love the endless, sunny, warm summer days. I know they love getting up early in the morning to see the sunrise while it is already warm enough to walk around in a t-shirt . I know they love the long, balmy summer evenings when the temperature stays in the mid-twenties until sunset at 10 o’clock at night…it is just the thought of having a sauna on site – such luxury!

I think our retreat could do with a live-in yoga instructor . I am seriously into yoga – I find it very relaxing (especially afterwards). I have come across hundreds (literally) of yoga retreats on the web. It would be great to have a yoga teacher here for our guests. Instead, we have to put up with nothing but miles of off-road footpaths through ancient woods, lush orchards, past quiet lakes, along manicured vineyards and flowered meadows for relaxing walks. I DO enjoy going for a long walk, maybe coming upon deer peacefully grazing in a lush green field, or a woodpecker building a 5* condo in an old oak tree in the woods or watching the swallows catching their dinner on the surface of a dark pond. I suppose I do enjoy doing some stretches on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere facing the rising sun, but a private yoga teacher, just for our retreat guests, would really make my day!

A detox diet regime might be a good idea too. I also saw loads of detox retreats on the web. I have hosted detox retreats in the past – my detox retreat was called the « Red Wine Retreat » (go figure) and was based on Prof Roger Corder’s research about the health benefits of red wine, specifically the famous Madiran wine of our region. The problem is, here in Gascony, we are surrounded and overwhelmed by nature’s bounty in every shape and form : fresh, home-grown fruit and vegetables, nuts from our neighbours’ trees, organic home-raised meat, fish from our own lake and free range poultry and eggs, some of the most delicious and excellent wines in all of France…a starvation diet here would be unthinkable. So we decided to feed our guests’ bodies as richly as we feed their minds. Gascony is, after all, a region famous for its extravagant gastronomy and exceptional wine

Silence might be beneficial too. I have also read about silent retreats on-line. Silent retreats are very popular. I can understand why people would refrain from talking during a retreat, in fact, we have a « no-talking » period to give our guests an idea of how this works, but we have no hope of creating total silence here, deep in the heart of a very active countryside. Sounds of nature keep shattering that so longed for silence: birdsong bursting our eardrums from sunrise to sunset, horses neighing and cantering up and down their paddocks, people joking and laughing while working in the vineyards surrounding us…it is only at night that silence reigns here profoundly and unperturbed.

Another thing I would appreciate would be a professionally designed and constructed meditation room. We have to make do with the deck by the lake – admittedly it is large, stretches out into the lake so that it feels as if you are sitting on water. There is a lot to be said for meditating outside, but when it rains we have to use the horses’ barn. It is true that the barn is very useful for equine-guided meditation, especially since we have installed sturdy tables for our guests to sit on when the horses join them for a meditation session, but I so admire the meditation rooms at huge retreats resorts in exotic locations! I suppose, for the time being, we will have to make do with our meditation labyrinth, our meditation station path on the island in the lake and the large number of secluded spots we have created for private meditation…

A small army of therapists to help us look after our guests would come in useful. All we have is a retired medical doctor (admittedly with many years of experience and a few decent qualifications), a wine expert (with a WSET diploma) and six supersmart horses. It does help that most of the horses also have many years of experience helping guests through equine-assisted experiential learning – (Belle de la Babinière has been on the job for nearly 10 years now) and that each of the horses bring their own individual characters and experiences to each session – some of our horses have suffered trauma eerily similar to the trauma our guests may have suffered in the past.. Aurileo d’Alegria, our cocky little Lusitano, was severely abused and on his way to the abattoir when we found out about his plight.

Sometimes I wish we were more isolated – like a lonely monastery on a mountain top – far from any interference from modern life. We are secluded, in our own little valley, on the edge of a typical south-of-France village, but we are not isolated. I suppose this does have the benefit that we are easy to reach. We are within less than 2 hours’ drive from 4 international airports: Bordeaux, Toulouse, Pau and Tarbes/Lourdes – our guests often spend a day on arrival or departure at the world famous Lourdes pilgrim site. I suppose it is also useful to have access to all mod con’s even though we are steadily working towards self-sufficiency and to be close to local weekly fresh food markets, as part of the aim of our retreat is to introduce our guests to the lifestyle that allows people of this region to live long, fit and healthy lives.

Huge bedrooms with every luxury imaginable would be interesting. We do not have bedrooms the size of aeroplane hangers. We have cosy bedrooms, with exposed, 200+-year-old oak beams supporting the ceiling, more oak beams in the half-timbered walls and terracotta tiles/oak floor boards. Each of our bedrooms is individually decorated, along the «Romantic French Country Style » (you can find out more about this style of interior decorating on my Pinterest board with the same name). Our guest accommodation is in a separate farmworker’s cottage, with its own kitchen (for that midnight cup of redbush tea), and its own sitting and dining room with an ancient open fireplace that now sports a cast-iron wood-burner. It also has a dainty little porch where our guests can sit and eat their breakfast looking out over the horse paddocks. No large and luxurious bedrooms, I am afraid, but the cottage does have free wifi.

Another thing on my wish list is a top-of-the-range, fully-fitted kitchen with every modern appliance/gadget ever invented. At the moment all our meals are cooked in a 200+-year-old farmhouse kitchen with a humongous bread oven; we often have an open fire going in the bread oven. It is true that we have spent many happy hours there, some in the company of our guests, cooking together, laughing and sampling a variety of wines (while pretending we are choosing the right wine to complement a specific dish). It is also true that our kitchen, in its current shape, is the inviting and welcoming hub of the house and that many a guest and I have shared and solved problems while sitting at the table shelling peas or skinning potatoes.

 I think, in retrospect, that I am quite perfectly happy and deeply grateful for what we already have – our retreat guests certainly appreciate what we have to offer them: “Ah, that brought a smile to my face:-) I think about you and your fur family SO often – your farm is my go-to daydreaming place. I smile just thinking about the space, the lake, all my horse friends (who thought I’d ever say that!) and the cats walking through the paddocks.” Claire-Marie M.

 CLICK HERE to find out more about our Personal Empowerment Workshops

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”  Seneca

Comparing Meditation Retreats

Best Paella Recipe

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If you come on a mindfulness meditation retreat at Les Sources Sacrées, we will feed your mind as well as your body. Les Sources Sacrées is a secluded but not isolated retreat house deep in the heart of Gascony, in the sun-drenched south of France – land of « milk and honey », or rather land of paella Gascon, duck confit, cassoulet, croustade and Madiran, Pacherenc, Saint Mont and Cotes de Gascogne wines. Going on a starvation diet while you are here would be soul-destroying.

In Gascony, people live long and healthy lives despite eating rich food and drinking copious amounts of wine – it is called the Gascon Paradox. On an equine-guided meditation retreat at Les Sources Sacrées, you will be introduced to this laid-back way of life : You will discover some of the most famous dishes and wine of this region, visit a local fresh food market and go on a tutored wine tasting.

One would think that people would quickly become obese on such a rich diet, but obesity here is very rare.

Les Sources Sacrées is located just 90 minutes north of the Spanish border. Many people here speak Spanish and people dance the tango, eat paella and attend a bullfight during their village fetes. Paella Gascon has, over the years, become the signature dish of our retreats, the dish is served at the welcoming dinner on the first night here. It is decadently delicious and so easy to adapt for vegetarians who do or do not eat fish.

Guests always ask for my best paella recipe, which I am always happy to share. Despite the long list of ingredients, it is easy to make and even freezes well.

Paella Gascon

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp virgin olive oil, cold pressed
  • 6 chicken (or small duck) drumsticks
  • 250g chorizo sausage, sliced, not too thinly
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 5 garlic cloves, peeled and grated
  • 2 cups rinsed short-grain rice (soak it in water first for 10-15 minutes, then drain)
  • 1 cup tomatoes, chopped in small cubes
  • 1 cup red peppers, sliced
  • 1 cup peas (frozen is fine)
  • 750 ml chicken stock
  • 250 ml of white wine (we use Pacherenc)
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp of cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • Half tsp of saffron
  • 500g prawns/large shrimp
  • 250 g calamari
  • 500g mussels, scrubbed and soaked
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ¼ cup of fresh, chopped parsley and sliced olives for garnish
  • 1 lemon cut into lemon wedges

Instructions

In a large paella pan/12 inch+ skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Coat the drumsticks with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add drumsticks to pan, then cook for about 5-10 minutes until the chicken is crisp. Add chorizo sausage, to flavour the oil.

When chicken is fully cooked, push it to one side of the pan, then add the onion and sautée it for 2-3 minutes until the onion becomes translucent. Add the garlic, stir well and cook for another minute.

Now add the rice, tomatoes and red peppers to the pan. Let the rice cook in the sauce from the tomatoes for about 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock, paprika, cayenne pepper, tumeric and saffron. Stir everything together (including drumsticks and chorizo) and cover with a large enough lid. Cook for about 15 minutes or until most of the liquid has been absorbed by the rice.

Turn down the heat. Arrange the shrimp and mussels over the rice, cover with a lid again and cook for another 5-10 minutes or until the mussels open up. Add the calamari for the last 3-4 minutes.

Turn off the heat and garnish with parsley and olives.

Gascon paella is often served with lemon wedges and a spicy red pepper rouille in this part of France:

Ingredients of the rouille:

  • 1/2 cup hot red peppers
  • 3 tsp dry breadcrumbs
  • Zest and juice of one lemon
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp tomato purée
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
  • Half a tsp of saffron
  • 4 tbsp of olive oil
  • Salt to taste

Instructions to make the rouille:

Mix all ingredients together (in a blender if preferred). Add cold pressed virgin olive oil last and blend until smooth. Serve in a small bowl with a hot, crusty baguette on the side. Some people stir ½ a tsp of rouille into their paella, others eat it spread on bread.

We usually combine our paella with a deep-red, robust, rock-your-socks-off Madiran, but you can also serve it with a dry white, like a Pacherenc sec.

Allez-y les Gascons, bon appétit!

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This post is also part of the Daily Post Photo Challenge: Dinnertime